by  Winston  Churchill

The Indian Empire

THE eighteenth century saw a revolutionary change in the British position in India. The English East India Company, founded simply as a trading venture, grew with increasing speed into a vast territorial Empire. About the year 1700 probably no more than fifteen hundred English people dwelt in India, including wives, children, and transient seamen. They lived apart in a handful of factories, as their trading stations were called, little concerned with Indian politics. A hundred years later British officials and soldiers in their thousands, under a British Governor-General, were in control of extensive provinces. This remarkable development was in part a result of the struggle between Britain and France, which filled the age and was fought out all over the globe. 

In America the French had the satisfaction of helping the United States to independence. In that field Britain was worsted. It was otherwise in India, where often the fight went on when in Europe Britain and France were at peace. But the Anglo-French conflict would never have spread violently across India if the times had not been ripe for European intervention. 

The great Empire of the Moguls was disintegrating. For two centuries these Moslem descendants of Tamburlaine had gripped and pacified a portion of the world half as large as the present United States. Centered in Delhi and supported by able proconsuls, they had kept the peace in Oriental fashion and conferred on the eighty million inhabitants of the subcontinent an orderly existence which they were not to know again for another hundred years. Early in the eighteenth century this formidable dynasty was shaken by a disputed succession. Invaders from the North soon poured across the frontiers. Delhi was sacked by the Shah of Persia. The Viceroys of the Moguls revolted and laid claim to the sovereignty of the Imperial provinces. Pretenders rose up to challenge the usurpers. In Central India the fierce fighting tribes of the Mahrattas, bound in a loose confederacy, saw and seized their chance to loot and to raid. The country was swept by anarchy and bloodshed.

Hitherto European traders in India, English, French, Portuguese, and Dutch, had plied their wares in rivalry, but so long as "the Great Mogul" ruled in Delhi they had competed in comparative peace and safety. The English East India Company had grown into a solid affair, with a capital of over a million and a quarter pounds and an annual dividend of 9 per cent. The population of Bombay, which Charles II had leased to the Company for ten pounds a year in 1668, had multiplied more than sixfold and exceeded sixty thousand souls. Madras, founded and fortified by the British in 1639, was the chief trading centre on the eastern coast. Calcutta, uninhabited till the servants of the corporation built a factory at the mouth of the Hoogli River in 1686, had become a flourishing and peaceful emporium. The French Compagnie des Index, centered at Pondicherry, had also prospered, though, unlike its British rival, it was in effect a Department of State and not a private concern. Both organizations had the same object, the promotion of commerce and the gaining of financial profit. The acquisition of territory played little part in the thoughts and plans of either nation, and indeed the English Directors had long been reluctant to own any land or assume any responsibilities beyond the confines of their trading stations. About 1740 events forced them to change their tune. The Mahrattas slaughtered the Nawab, or Imperial Governor, of the Carnatic, the five-hundred-mile-long province on the south-eastern coast. They threatened Madras and Bombay, and raided the depths of Bengal. It was becoming impossible for the European traders to stand aside. They must either fight on their own or in alliance with Indian rulers or quit. Most of the Dutch had already withdrawn to the rich archipelago of the East Indies; the Portuguese had long since fallen behind in the race; the French and English resolved to stay. Thus these two European Powers were left alone in the field.

As has so often happened in the great crises of her history, France produced a man. Joseph Dupleix, Governor of Pondicherry since 1741, had long foreseen the coming struggle with Britain. He perceived that India awaited a new ruler. The Mogul Empire was at an end, and a Mahratta Empire seemed unlikely to replace it. Why then should not France seize this glittering, fertile prize? When the War of the Austrian Succession broke out in Europe Dupleix acted with decision. He appealed to the Nawab of the Carnatic to forbid hostilities within his jurisdiction, where most of the French stations lay. This granted, he proceeded to attack Madras. Its English Governor asked the new Nawab to enforce a similar neutrality on the French, but omitted to accompany his request with a suitable bribe. Dupleix, on the other hand, promised to hand over the city once it was captured. Thus reassured, the Nawab stood aside, and after a five-day bombardment the town surrendered on September 10, 1746. Some of its British defenders escaped to the near-by Fort St David. Among them was a young clerk of twenty-one, named Robert Clive.

Dupleix, victorious, refused to surrender Madras to the Nawab and spent the rest of the year repelling his attacks. He then assaulted Fort St David, but news arrived that the war in Europe had ceased and that the peace treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle prescribed that Madras was to be returned to the British in return for the cession of Louisburg, in Nova Scotia, to France. Thus ended a dismal and inglorious opening to the great struggle in India.

Clive had watched these events with anger and alarm, but hitherto there had been few signs in his career to mark him as the man who would reverse his country's fortunes and found the rule of the British in India. He was the son of a small squire, and his boyhood had been variegated and unpromising. Clive had attended no fewer than four schools, and been unsuccessful at all. In his Shropshire market town he had organized and led a gang of adolescent ruffians who extorted pennies and apples from tradesmen in return for not breaking their windows. At the age of eighteen he was sent abroad as a junior clerk in the East India Company at a salary of five pounds a year and forty pounds expenses. He was a difficult and unpromising subordinate. He detested the routine and the atmosphere of the counting-house. Twice, it is said, he attempted suicide, and twice the pistol misfired. Not until he had obtained a military commission and served some years in the armed forces of the Company did he reveal a military genius unequalled in the British history of India. The siege of Madras and the defense of Fort St David had given him a taste for fighting. In 1748 a new upheaval gave him the chance of leadership.

Indian pretenders seized the Mogul viceroyalty of the Deccan and conquered the Carnatic. With a few French soldiers and a couple of thousand Indian troops Dupleix expelled them and placed his own puppets on the throne. The British candidate, Mahomet Ali, was chased into Trichinopoly and fiercely besieged. At a stroke France had become master of Southern India. The next blow would obviously be against the English. Here was the end of any hope of peaceful trading, or of what would nowadays be called non-intervention in Indian affairs, and it became evident that the East India Company must either fight or die. Clive obtained a commission. He made his way to Trichinopoly, and saw for himself that Mahomet Ali was in desperate peril. If he could be rescued and placed on the throne all might be well. But how to do it? Trichinopoly was beset by a combined French and Indian army of vast numbers. The English had very few soldiers, and were so ill-prepared and so short of officers that Clive, still only twenty-five, was given the chief military command. The direct relief of Trichinopoly was impossible, and Clive at once perceived that his blow must be struck elsewhere. Arcot, capital of the Carnatic, had been stripped of troops; most of them were at Trichinopoly besieging Mahomet Ali. Capture Arcot and they would be forced to come back. With two hundred Europeans, six hundred Indians, and eight officers, of whom half were former clerks like himself, Clive set forth. The town fell easily to his assault, and he and his small handful prepared desperately for the vengeance which was to come. Everything turned out as Clive had foreseen. The Indian potentate, dismayed by the loss of his capital, detached a large portion of his troops from Trichinopoly and attacked Clive in Arcot. The struggle lasted for fifty days. Twenty times outnumbered, and close to starvation, Clive's puny force broke the onslaught in a night attack in which he served a gun himself, and the siege was lifted by the threat of an admiring Mahratta chieftain to come to the aid of the British. This was the end of Dupleix, and of much else besides. By 1752 Clive, in combination with Stringer Lawrence, a regular soldier from England, had defeated the French and the French-sponsored usurpers and placed Mahomet Ali on the throne. The Carnatic was safe. Next year Clive, newly wed, but in bad health, sailed to England. He was much enriched by the "presents," as they were politely called, which he had received from Indian rulers. Dupleix struggled on, but was recalled to France in 1754, and died nine years later in poverty and disgrace. The contrast is striking between the wealth and power won by the English leaders in India and the sad fate that befell most of the French.

In England Clive used a part of his fortune in an attempt to enter Parliament for a "rotten borough" in Cornwall. He was unsuccessful, and in 1755 he returned to India. He was only just in time, for a new struggle was about to open in the North-East. Hitherto French, Dutch, and English had traded peacefully side by side in the fertile province of Bengal, and its docile, intelligent, and industrious inhabitants had largely escaped the slaughter and anarchy of the South. Calcutta, at the mouth of the Ganges, was earning good dividends. Peace had been kept by a Moslem adventurer from the North-West who had seized and held power for fourteen years. But he died in 1756, and the throne passed to his nephew, Surajah Dowlah, young, vicious, violent, and greedy. Fearing, with some justice, that what came to be called the Seven Years' War between Britain and France, lately broken out, would engulf his dominions and reduce him to a puppet like his fellow-princes in the Deccan, he called on both the European communities to dismantle their fortifications. The French at Chandernagore, up-river from Calcutta, returned a soothing answer. The English, aware that war with France was imminent, had extended their fortifications on the river-bank, where the French attack was expected, and ignored his demands. Other frictions increased his anger. In May Surajah Dowlah struck.

Gathering a large army, including guns and Europeans trained to use them, he marched on Calcutta. Modern research has cleared the Governor and the English authorities from the graver charges of cowardice and incompetence denounced by Macaulay, but the landward approach to the city was unfortified, there was mismanagement and confusion, and the evacuation by ships developed into a panic scramble. The small garrison and most of the English civilians fought bravely, but in three days it was all over. They had lived in peace too long. A terrible fate now overtook them. A hundred and forty-six Europeans surrendered after the enemy had penetrated the defenses under a flag of truce. They were thrust for the night into a prison cell twenty feet square. By the morning all except twenty-three were dead. The victors departed, having looted the Company's possessions. "Little though he guessed it," says Lord Elton, "the dealings of Surajah Dowlah with the British had ensured they would become the next rulers of India. For the tragedy of the Black Hole had dispelled their last wishful illusion that it might still be possible for them to remain in India as traders and no more. There was an outrage to avenge, and at last they were more than ready to fight."  1

The news reached Madras in August. The Directors had not yet learnt that war with France had already broken out in Europe, but there were rumours, as in Calcutta, of a French attack, both by sea and from the Deccan. They nevertheless gave Clive all their naval power and nearly all their troops. In January 1757, with nine hundred European and fifteen hundred Indian soldiers, he recaptured Calcutta and repulsed Surajah Dowlahy's army of forty thousand men. The war with France now compelled him to retreat, but only long enough for him to attack Chandernagore, which he dared not leave in French hands, before hastening back to Madras. In March Chandernagore fell; its garrison, fighting very bravely, withdrew. Then fortune came to Clive's aid. Surajah Dowlah's cruelty was too much, even for his own people. A group of courtiers resolved to depose him and place a new ruler, Mir Jafar, on the throne. Clive agreed to help. On June 23, his army having grown to three thousand men, of whom less than a third were British, he met Surajah Dowlah at Plassey. He was outnumbered seventeen to one. The Hoogli River, now in flood behind him, forbade retreat; the enemy gathered in a semicircle on the open plain. Clive disposed his force along the edge of a mango grove and awaited the onslaught. Battle there was none. Nevertheless it was a trial of strength, on which the fortunes of India turned. For four hours there was a cannonade. Then Surajah Dowlah, sensing treachery in his own camp, and listening to the counsel of those plotting to betray him, ordered a withdrawal. Clive had resolved to let him go and make a night attack later on, but a junior officer advanced against orders. It became impossible to check the pursuit. The enemy dispersed in panic and a few days later Surajah Dowlah was murdered by Mir Jafar's son. For the loss of thirty-six men Clive had become the master of Bengal and the victor of Plassey.

Much however still remained to be accomplished. Mir Jafar, who had taken no part in the so-called battle, was placed on the throne, but the province swarmed with Moslem fighting men from the North and was fertile in pretenders. The neighbouring state of Oudh was hostile; the French were still active; and even the Dutch showed signs of interfering.

1  Lord Elton, Imperial Commonwealth (1945).

Clive beat the lot. If the English would not rule the country themselves, they must ensure that a friendly local potentate did so. Indirect control was the order of the day. The alternative was more anarchy and more bloodshed. When Clive sailed once more to England in February 1760 Britain was the only European Power left in India. In little more than four years he had brought about a great change upon the Indian scene. The French were still allowed to keep their trading posts, but their influence was destroyed, and nine years later the Com-pagnie des Indestwas abolished. Clive had now accumulated a fortune of a quarter of a million pounds. He bought his way into Parliament, as was the custom of the time, and was created an Irish peer. His services in India were not yet over.

Modern generations should not mistake the character of the British expansion in India. The Government was never involved as a principal in the Indian conflict, and while Pitt, who justly appreciated the ability of Clive, supported him with all the resources at his command his influence on events was small. In any case he already had a world war on his hands. Faced with the difficulties of communication, the distance, and the complexities of the scene, Pitt left Clive with a free hand, contenting himself with advice and support. The East India Company was a trading organization. Its Directors were men of business. They wanted dividends, not wars, and grudged every penny spent on troops and annexations. But the turmoil in the great sub-continent compelled them against their will and their judgment to take control of more and more territory, till in the end, and almost by accident they established an empire no less solid and certainly more peaceful than that of their Mogul predecessors. To call this process "Imperialist expansion" is nonsense, if by that is meant the deliberate acquisition of political power. Of India it has been well said that the British Empire was acquired in a fit of absence of mind.

Clive's triumph created as many problems as it solved, and the years which followed his departure contain some of the most squalid pages in the history of the British in India. The object of the East India Company was to make profits. How the country was ruled they neither knew nor cared so long as peace was maintained and trade prospered. They deposed the aging Mir Jafar, and, when his puppet-successor became restless, defeated him in a bloody battle and sold the throne of Bengal by auction. The ill-paid servants of the Company were both forced and encouraged to take bribes, presents, and every kind of shameful perquisite from the inhabitants. Tales of corruption and the gaining of vast and illicit private fortunes crept back to England. The Directors of the Company suddenly found that they had lost both their dividends and their good name. They appealed to Clive, made him Governor-General of all their Indian territories, and in June 1764 he sailed to India for the last time. His reforms were drastic, high-handed, and in effect more far-reaching than the victory at Plassey. Their success prompted the Mogul Emperor to invite him to extend a British protectorate to Delhi and all Northern India. Clive refused. He had long doubted the ability of the Company to undertake the larger responsibilities of Empire, and five years earlier he had suggested in a letter to Pitt that the Crown should assume the sovereignty of the Company's possessions in India. This advice was disregarded for nearly a century. Meanwhile, in return for a subsidy the Great Mogul ceded to the Company the right to administer the revenues. Administration of justice remained with the Indian rulers. Such division of responsibilities could not last, and was soon to create formidable problems, but at least it was a step forward. The British held the purse-strings, and "the power," wrote Clive, "is now lodged where it can only be lodged in safety." In January 1767 he returned to England. The British public were critical and ill-informed. Clive was assailed in the House of Commons. He defended himself in an eloquent speech. He pointed out that by his exertions the Directors of the East India Company "had acquired an Empire more extensive than any kingdom in Europe. They had acquired a revenue of four millions sterling and trade in proportion." About the gains which he himself had made he exclaimed in celebrated passage, "Am I not rather deserving of praise for the moderation which marked my proceedings? Consider the situation in which the victory at Plassey had placed me. A great prince was dependent on my pleasure; an opulent city lay at my mercy; its richest bankers bid against each other for my smiles; I walked through vaults which were thrown open to me alone, piled on either hand with gold and jewels. Mr Chairman, at this moment I stand astonished at my own moderation." The House of Commons unanimously passed a resolution that "Robert Lord Clive rendered great and meritorious services to this country." The vehement, tormented spirit who was the subject of this motion was not appeased. A few years later he died by his own hand.

Clive was soon followed in India by as great a man as himself, but with a somewhat different background. Warren Hastings was poor, but his ancestors had once owned large estates in Worcestershire. The wars of Oliver Cromwell had compelled his great-grandfather to sell the family home at Daylesford, and from early boyhood Hastings dreamed of winning it back. His mother died when he was very young, and an uncle brought him up and sent him to school at Westminster. There he became the senior classical scholar, and the masters wanted him to go to a university. His uncle refused, and sent him to India instead. He was then sixteen years of age.

He served the East India Company as a subordinate through the great period of Clive's triumphs, and a year after Clive's final departure he became a member of the Council in Calcutta. From this position of limited but definite responsibility he witnessed the squalor and confusion which prevailed. The Company's servants continued to build their fortunes at the expense of their employers and of the inhabitants. The Mahrattas seized Delhi and menaced Oudh. Madras was threatened, and even Bombay, hitherto so peaceful, was involved in the civil wars. Between 1769 and 1770 a third of the population of Bengal died of famine. Throughout these ordeals Warren Hastings held fast to an austere way of life. He desired fame and power, and enough money to buy back Daylesford. The gathering of private fortunes he left to others. Rapacity was not in his nature. In 1772 he became Governor of the stricken, preyed-upon, but still wealthy province of Bengal. He made two resolutions: to keep up the Company's dividends and to make the British collect the taxes. By now however the whispers and worse on which Clive had been nearly censured by Parliament had taken hold of public opinion in England. Rich adventurers from the East were making and marring the repute of the new Empire in India. Too wealthy and too arrogant to subside into the levels of society from which they had emerged, and too upsprung to mix with the aristocracy, the "Nabobs," as they were called—it is the same word as Nawab, but in different spelling—were disliked or envied by all classes in Great Britain. The courage and discipline which had won the day at Arcot and at Plassey and had avenged the Black Hole were overlooked. Nor was this wholly unjust, since many of the Nabobs had been too busily engaged in amassing wealth to lend much help to Clive. "India," declared the aging Chatham, "teems with iniquities so rank as to smell to heaven and earth." Jealousy, ignorance, and sentimentality combined in a cry for reform. There were also solid grounds for complaint. Within nine years nearly three million pounds had been collected as personal rewards by the Company's servants from the inhabitants of Bengal. The instrument for reform happened to be Lord North.

North did his best within his lights. His motto was "Shackle the great," and the year after Hastings became Governor of Bengal he induced Parliament to pass a Regulating Act. The measure was not totally lacking in merit. The administration of British-held territory in India was unified. Bombay and Madras were subjected to a "Governor-General" established at Calcutta, and Warren Hastings was made the first Governor-General, with a salary of twenty-five thousand pounds a year. But in trying to make sure that power was not abused it was made impotent. On paper it was divided between the Nawab of Bengal, the Board of Directors, the Governor-General, and a Council appointed to veto and control him. For years Hastings fought against his shackles. His principal opponent was his new colleague, Philip Francis, the reputed author of the savage Letters of Junius which had attacked the Government at home during the agitations over Wilkes. Francis never ceased to intrigue against him, openly and behind his back. But Hastings knew what needed to be done, and he was determined to do it. Though naturally a man of quick temper, he learned the virtues of patience and cool persistence. At one moment the government tried to recall him. Then two of the most ignorant and hostile members of his Council died, and soon afterwards France, roused by the revolt in America and seeking to regain her power in India, once again declared war on Britain. Hastings at last was free to act. His liberation came only just in time.

By 1778 a French fleet was approaching the southern coast, Hyder Ali of Mysore was overrunning the Carnatic, the British Governor of Madras had been imprisoned by his own corrupt officials, and Bombay was at war with the Mahrattas.

In the space of six years Hastings retrieved everything. His naval forces were weaker than the French, and although they fought no fewer than five engagements they were unable to prevent the French landing on the Madras coast. The Government of Madras was purged and reanimated. Sir Eyre Coote, who had served at Plassey, and was still the ablest British soldier in India, was sent hurriedly southwards. He defeated Hyder Ali at Porto Novo in 1781, and his son Tipu Sultan a year later. Peace was negotiated with the Mahrattas. By 1783  the only active enemies who remained were the French, and their hopes of progress were stopped by the conclusion of the Treaty of Versailles. England had lost one Empire in America and gained another in India.

All this train of action had cost a lot of money. Hastings could get very little help, financial or material, from England, exhausted and overstrained by the conflict in America, Europe and on the seas. His only course was to raise it on the spot. The inhabitants of Bengal were wealthy. They were also, thanks to British arms and leadership, comparatively safe. They "should pay for their protection," and Hastings had been quite ruthless in making them do so. Thus he gathered the funds to rescue Bombay and the Carnatic and to stop the bloodshed once more engulfing Bengal. His critics, and those of the East India Company, were not slow to point out that only a third of the two million pounds he raised was spent on the war. The rest leaked away in familiar directions. But Hastings himself was careless of money and came home with no great fortune. He left India in 1785, not without the gratitude of the inhabitants. Unlike many Englishmen in India at this time, he spoke the local languages well. He enjoyed the society of Indians, and had once been rebuked on this account by the formidable Clive. Though proud of his birth and ancestry, consciousness of race, colour, or religion never influenced or distracted him.

In the beginning Hastings was welcomed and honoured in England. His achievements and victories were some compensation for the humiliations and disasters in America, and the Company had much to thank him for. A year before his return the younger Pitt had passed an India Act making the Board of Control subject to the Cabinet and assuming the political powers of the East India Company. Hastings had disapproved of this. Though the Governor-General was thus freed from the fetters of the Council at Calcutta imposed by into their pay and training their armies on the European pattern. The Marquess Wellesley was left in 1798 to extinguish the threat. Napoleon, victorious in Egypt, and himself seeking an empire in the East, offered help to Tipu, who began to assemble a French-trained army. The struggle between France and England once again loomed over India. There was a danger of naval attack from the French-held island of Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean. Wellesley acted with speed and resolution. He offered Tipu what was termed a "subsidiary treaty," whereby Tipu was to dismiss all Frenchmen, disband his troops, and pay for the Company's protection of his dominions. Tipu preferred to fight, and in 1799 he was driven back to his capital at Seringapatam and killed. Wellesley then annexed the outlying portions of Mysore, and returned the rest to the Hindu potentates whom Hyder Ali had dispossessed. They did not survive for long. When the French Oriental ambitions foundered in the Battle of the Nile, Wellesley turned his attention to the Carnatic. Its Government was bankrupt and oppressive, and in 1801 he pensioned off the Nawab and made it into the Madras Presidency. In the same year he dealt with Oudh. Here all was far from well. The Nawab, though under British protection, had surrendered his dominions to pillage and exploitation, by his own mutinous troops and by greedy adventurers from Europe. On him also Wellesley imposed a subsidiary treaty. In return for a guarantee of protection, he ceded most of his territories to the British, except for a small portion round Lucknow, dismissed all Europeans from his service except those approved by the Company, and promised to govern according to the Company's advice.

Lastly Wellesley dealt with the Mahrattas. Some years previously they had captured Delhi, seized the person of the Mogul Emperor, and demanded tribute on his behalf from Bengal. Now they started fighting among themselves. Their chief escaped and appealed to Wellesley, who restored him to his capital at Poona. The rest of them thereupon declared war on the British, and after heavy fighting were defeated at Assaye and elsewhere by Wellesley's younger brother, the future Duke of Wellington. On them also Wellesley imposed a subsidiary treaty, and Orissa and most of the province of Delhi were surrendered to the British. "In seven years," writes a distinguished historian, "he had transformed the map of India and launched his countrymen on a career of expansion which only stopped at the Afghan mountains half a century later. . . . These proceedings appear, superficially, ambitious and high-handed in the extreme. For their justification they must plead that in every case they operated to the advantage of the populations concerned. Eighteenth-century India resembled fifth-century Europe. Wellesley knew that British rule was the only alternative to bloodshed, tyranny, and anarchy, and he had no false delicacy in translating his conviction into fact. Europe after the fall of Rome took many weary centuries to settle down into a land where the common man might live his life in security; in India British authority accomplished a settlement in the space of fifty years." *  The East India Company however took a different view. The Directors still wanted trade, not conquests, and were so hostile and critical that Wellesley resigned in 1805.

His successor, Lord Minto, was expressly forbidden to take on any new territorial responsibilities, and for a brief period he succeeded in marking time. But it was impossible to do this for long. The pacification which Wellesley had begun must either be completed or perish. The disbanding of local armies which he had imposed on so many Indian rulers let loose a horde of unemployed and discontented soldiery, who formed themselves into robber gangs. Helped by the Mahrattas, who mistook British neutrality for weakness, these gangs began the pillage of Central India. The Marquess Hastings, appointed Governor-General in 1814, was compelled to subdue them with a large force. The Mahrattas, seeing their last chance vanish of succeeding to the Empire of the Moguls, promptly revolted. They too were defeated, their chief was deposed, and his Principality of Poona added to the Presidency of Bombay. Against its wishes and almost in spite of itself, the Company was now overlord of three-quarters of India.

* J. A. Williamson, A Short History of British Expansion (1922), p. 578.